RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One thing about the Tea Party, it's been hard to quantify the movement's influence. This past spring the New York Times and CBS News conducted a poll and came up with 18 percent. That's the number of people who claim some sort of kinship to the Tea Party. A far smaller number say they are financial contributors or activists. Those numbers most likely are larger now that the Tea Party is claiming some success in influencing primary elections.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
We wanted to pay a call on some Tea Party members so we traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia, the home of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, a town that identifies itself as the gold buckle of the Bible belt.
In Lynchburg, we met with some local Tea Party leaders, although they all firmly insist that the Tea Party has no leaders. We asked why they felt inspired to get involved. Darriel and Shelby Burnett are from Danville, Virginia. Mrs. Burnett worked for a financial company.
Ms. SHELBY BURNETT (Tea Party member): I was unaware of what was going on around me until I retired. And we started watching Fox News and getting more informed on what was going on in our nation.
WERTHEIMER: We were asleep, she went on, but they have awakened a sleeping giant. The big wake up call for the Burnetts was the economy. He retired from Goodyear. This is Darriel Burnett.
Mr. DARIEL BURNETT: If you look at the entire country, money has got to be the big questions. My wife and I took a hit on our retirement. We lost approximately 12 years worth of savings in about four months.
WERTHEIMER: These Virginia Tea Partiers also give credit to the country's founders for their own personal political awakening. Mark Lloyd is a sales rep for media companies.
Mr. MARK LLOYD (Sales Rep): Think about the men that lived here. Patrick Henry's buried 30 miles from here. I mean you got Thomas Jefferson. You got - I mean, you've got the founding fathers here. And I think what you see happening is - there's a reawakening of that spirit in America. I think that freedom and liberty, that's hardwired. It's hardwired into us. Now unfortunately, it's taken this financial disaster, along with some other disasters, to wake us up. But I think we're there.
WERTHEIMER: Kurt Feigel is a web designer who has his own Tea Party blog. For him the larger issue is government spending, debt and deficits.
Mr. KURT FEIGEL (Web Designer): I remember back - and I can't even remember when - growing up, when the national debt - not the deficit but the debt - hit a trillion dollars. And I tried to do the math and I was not able to figure out how in the world our country could ever pay back a trillion dollars in debt. And now we're up over 13.
WERTHEIMER: Kurt Feigel takes debt personally. He lived in California, and when the economy crashed he had to walk away from his mortgage. He ran up tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt and moved his family to Virginia to save money and pay his debts.
Mr. FEIGEL: When you have debt, you cannot continue to live like that. You will eventually be bankrupt or have to file for bankruptcy, or have somebody come and either throw you in jail for fraud or take everything you've bought with that debt. And that's what I see when I look at America and where we've gone. And that's what I think a lot of us in the Tea Party are here for - is maybe a lot of people can't articulate, well, I don't know why exactly I'm here, but I know something's not right and I want to change that.
WERTHEIMER: We asked our very small sample of the Tea Party movement if they see a way to vote their concerns, if they see candidates they can support. This group definitely won't vote for Democrats, but they don't seem to like Republicans much better. Wayne McDaniel works for a used car company.
Mr. WAYNE MCDANIEL: I wasn't particularly enamored with the Republicans or the Democrats at the time, simply because they to me it just seemed like a big group going in the same direction.
WERTHEIMER: These Virginians made an effort to work with the local Republicans and found themselves up against what they call the kingdom, the inner circle. It's an argument that's not yet over. This is Darriel Burnett.
Mr. DARRIEL BURNETT: We're getting in on their machinery, we're scratching around in their sandbox and they don't like it. But we are people and if they had been doing their job, nobody would have to call them to task. But they haven't been doing their job, so here we are.
WERTHEIMER: This group is looking past the Republican Party. They want candidates who could carry their ideas even more than they want winning candidates who might help Republicans take control of Congress. Kurt Feigel again.
Mr. FEIGEL: There's a time when we should worry about control and there's a time where we should worry about doing what's right. And I don't know where the line is, but I know that when the choice is a liberal Republican or a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican, I'll take the conservative Republican any day, if that means losing. Because if we win a race with a liberal, what have we won? For me, it's not a lesser of two evils argument.
WERTHEIMER: The group we interviewed is very proud of the fact that there are no leaders in the Tea Party, no politicians they have to grit their teeth and support, they like big ideas, a longer view. Although they are clearly socially conservative, for now, they're even prepared to set those issues aside. Christina Stringfield is a freshman at Central Virginia Community College.
Ms. CHRISTINA STRINGFIELD (Student, Central Virginia Community College): You know, we're not a party, there's no specific Tea Party candidate, so we don't -the Tea Party's focused on getting back the constitutional limited government, and that is our focus. I personally, don't agree with abortion, but this Tea Party's focus is constitutionally limited government, not social issues.
WERTHEIMER: And you approve of that?
Ms. STRINGFIELD: Oh, yes ma'am.
WERTHEIMER: These Tea Party folks in Lynchburg are a little bit amused by the people they call pundits and experts who want to identify the captain of this ship, who suggest that a movement that is leaderless lacks clarity and direction. Mark Lloyd dismisses that.
Mr. LLOYD: Picture this sailing ship, the old wooden clipper sailing out on the ocean. Man, they're describing the decks on the ship, they're talking about the ship's wheel and the bell and the - and they're all predicting that this ship is going to crash on the rocks. But in fact, the Tea Party's not the ship, it's the wind. Look at the wind and you'll see the Tea Party. You're not going to control it, but it's going to move the way it's going to move.
WERTHEIMER: Mark Lloyd acknowledges that changing the course of American politics will take a while. A dozen years, a hundred years, he says. In any case it won't be settled this coming election day.
Mr. LLOYD: I was asked a question the other day about, you know, if you're writing the book on the Tea Party, you know, where are you on November 3rd in the book? And I had to think about it for a minute, and I said we're at chapter one page one, because for the last 17-18 months, we've just been reading the dust jacket. Our job starts November 3rd.
That's Mark Lloyd, president of the Lynchburg Tea Party. We'll have more from Mark Lloyd and the other participants who tell us why they decided to join the Tea Party. That's at our website, npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.